EAST LEROY, Mich.
Hard to believe it’s that time of year already, but the annual UMP Summer Nationals tour, the dream and vision of late UMP founder Bob Memmer, is upon us once again.
The Hell Tour they call it these days. That’s what it must seem like for many of its competitors.
More than four weeks of dust and glory and mud and heartbreak. A 32-day grind through the Midwest that can flat kill drivers, crews and cars.
It’s a whole month of patching broken headers with pieces cut from aluminum cans, running from hauler to hauler to borrow a gear when the track size was misjudged, and putting a risky move on a competitor and getting it right back the next night.
It’s spending weeks on the road with only thoughts of going home, and working all night in a parking lot to rebuild the car to stay in a points chase that might already be too far out of reach.
It’s going without sleep and regular showers, and eating two or three meals a day out of a paper sack, cooler or a concession stand.
From the tiny fifth miles at Macon Speedway, Highland Speedway and Belle-Clair Speedway in Illinois to the big half-mile in Lake Odessa, Mich., it’s 29 hard-fought races at some of the toughest bullrings in this country.
Simply put, the Summer Nationals is dirt-track late-model racing at its very best.
One could spend hours wondering why the barnstorming nature of the series that harkens back to simpler times attracts the several drivers who compete the whole month. But the money’s decent and it can be a field day for those racing for UMP national points.
And these guys are race-car drivers. They race.
The Summer Nationals events usually equal close competition, hard-nose racing where setup and driving ability can sometimes outrun big dollars.
That was Memmer’s vision more than a quarter-century ago.
He got it right, and when he was around, he lived it and breathed it just like his drivers did.
To successfully do the Summer Nationals often takes two or three cars and plenty of help. Some have that, others don’t.
As usual, there are several drivers this season who say they will race the entire series, at least eight, including former champions Shannon Babb, Kevin Weaver and Dennis Erb, Jr.
That’s six Summer Nationals championships and 88 victories right there.
Add to that list 2000 Dirt Track World champion Wendell Wallace, 2009 UMP national champion Jason Feger, Michigan standouts Rusty Schlenk and Jeep VanWormer, and rising star Ryan Unzicker and there’s another 15 wins.
There are likely a few other names to be added, plus the smattering of events that will feature high-profile national touring drivers like Brian Birkhofer, Jimmy Mars and 2004 Summer Nationals champion and 35-time winner Don O’Neal.
And you can likely figure that the undisputed Summer Nationals king Billy Moyer will show up from time to time.
Moyer is a six-time Summer Nationals champion with 72 wins under his belt, the leader in both categories. Racing a limited schedule last season, Moyer won five of the first 12 races.
Perhaps the top two events on the annual tour are the Herald and Review 100 in Macon, Ill., and the final stop at popular Oakshade Raceway just north of Wauseon, Ohio.
Oakshade always features the highest car count, and both events are supported annually by a standing-room-only crowd.
Last season, 12 of the top-15 drivers in Summer Nationals points hauled to the Oakshade finale, the most ever, said UMP director Sam Driggers.
The point title, often decided or close to it by then, was up for grabs with Randy Korte leading Erb by 20. The eventful race unfolded and Erb won the title by a mere eight points.
After 30 days on the road, the whole complexion of the series changed in just 60 laps and 30 minutes.
And that’s exactly what Bob Memmer would’ve expected to happen.